The birth of a short story

Seeing my name on the 2016 Aurealis shortlist a couple of weeks ago was pretty bloody thrilling. There is a writing goal I’ve had my eye on ever since the moment when I first held a copy of Winds of Change – the anthology in which my first-ever published story appeared – in my hot little hands.

What made the nomination even sweeter was seeing how many of my really good writing buddies were on that list with me. The Australian Speculative Fiction community is pretty small and (in my experience anyway) a really collegiate, supportive bunch of people. I know a fair few people on that list now. But, among all the nominees I know and admire, it was very satisfying seeing how many of my fellow Canberra writers and members of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild appeared on the list:

  • Ian McHugh (nom for Best Science Fiction Short with The Baby Eaters in Asimov’s)
  • T R Napper (nom for Best Horror Short with The Flame Trees in Asimov’s)
  • Dave Versace (nom for Best Fantasy Short with The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat in Aurealis)
  • Shauna O’Meara (nom for Best YA Short for No One Here Is Going To Save You in In Your Face)
  • Kaaron Warren (noms for Best Horror and Best Sci Fi Short for 68 Days in Tomorrow’s Cthulu and Best Horror Novel for The Grief Hole)
  • Simon Petrie (nom for Best Sci Fi Novella for All the Colours of the Tomato in Dimension 6).

Echoing these sentiments, my mate Tim (aka T R Napper) tweeted:

Which got me thinking about the important role my writing community has played in getting Pretty Jennie Greenteeth this far. In fact, in getting all of my stories published.

Just looking at Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, I found out about Belladonna Publishing and the anthologies they were producing through my writing group. Someone (I think it was Dave Versace) pointed me at their submissions call for their Black Apples anthology, which they knew was right up my alley. I didn’t end up getting a story into that anthology (damn), but I was instantly on it when Belladonna put their next call out. That willingness to share information about opportunities is something invaluable about my writing crowd, the CSFG. Especially to a rank rookie writer who had no idea who was who or what was anything. And not only did they help me figure out where in the industry I needed to be sending my submissions, but they also helped me figure out how to submit.

Start at the top. Work your way down. You’re never going to know what level you’re writing to if you don’t start at the top.

 – Ian McHugh

^^That’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Submit to the best markets first. Where do you want most to be published? Go there first. You just won’t know if your piece was good enough for them if you don’t send it.

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Ian McHugh & Tim Napper, celebrating Aurealis noms

Then there’s the frank and fearless feedback offered by the CSFG critiquing circles. I’ve had my work critiqued by almost everyone on the list of nominees above. In fact, these guys are basically my go-to peeps outside the organised critiquing circle, especially when a deadline is looming, or I just want to sit & talk through a piece and really hash out the issues. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth went through CSFG’s short story critiquing circle. I got some really useful feedback on it, including, from memory, advice on dealing with a continuity issue, comment on a difficult-to-pronounce name and warning flags on cliches. But a good critiquing partner will also tell you where you’re going right. We’re all suckers for metaphorical pats on the head in this business, but damn it feels good when someone whose work you admire says they like your story. (Thank you Dave Versace and Tim Napper in this case.)

Then there’s what happens after your story gets published (if your luck is in & you get that far.) Tim Napper, in particular, is fairly tireless in his commitment to spruiking stories by Australian authors that he rates well. He regularly posts about good Australian fiction he’s read and he put this great post up recently with his recommendations on Australian stories that came out in 2016 that are eligible for the Ditmar awards (these are Australia’s fan-voted genre awards, the Aurealis awards are the juried awards). Even if you’re not necessarily eligible to vote in the Ditmars, it is worth checking out his list, because he’s recommended some fantastic fiction. (If you are eligible, you should get your skates on and vote – noms close tonight, 19 March, 11.59pm AEDST: list of eligible works, online voting form.) Full disclosure: he’s recommended one of mine, Breathing (Aurealis #95). But I am far and away the junior partner on that list, so I have no hesitation in adding my voice to his exhortations to read the others’ work.

I’m far from the first to point out writing can be a lonely business. And trying to judge for yourself whether your piece of fiction needs more work or is ready to send out into the world is a tricksy business. Finding your writing community, the right writing community for you, is a gift of incalculable worth. And it can make bringing your stories out into the world just that little bit easier.

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Down the Research Rabbit Hole #7 – with Ian McHugh

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

IanThis week’s guest is Ian McHugh, who sports what is surely one of the most resplendent beards in the Australian speculative fiction scene. His writing speaks for itself and has featured in publications such as Asimov’s, Clockwork Phoenix and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is renowned as a blunt and fearless (and therefore extremely useful) beta reader, and his critiques often start with a variation of: “Your story starts here on page 3.” He can frequently be found running workshops at the ACT Writers Centre, or teaching at the University of Canberra.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book/story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

I’m currently writing a secondary world fantasy novel with early modern technology – steam engines and gunpowder weapons and whatnot – combined with magic. It’s not steampunk, I just wanted to step away from the standard medieval-era for adventure fantasy. So, I needed to know early steam technology, firearms and artillery, as well as naval warfare in the transition from sail to steam, siege warfare with early cannons and (because it’s a magical secondary world) golems.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

This current project started with canals. The canal infrastructure from the early industrial revolution in Britain was incredible. They had actual mechanical lifts – not locks, lifts – for barges, where the barge would go into a gated tub and be lifted, water and all, straight up a cliff, with a counterweight tub coming down. So, that canal infrastructure became a bigger part of the story as I wrote, and a number of the pivotal moments in the story are built around canal things.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

I tend to research big things before I start writing, then research details as I go. As such, research is important to both my writing process and my procrastination process. It also means I do a fair bit of backtracking to retrofit corrected details as I write, so forward progress some days can be slow even if I’m working hardly rather than hardly working.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

I think once you have writer-brain, everything and anything can become research and inspiration. Generally speaking, research is inspiration. Research is also incredibly distracting. So many rabbit holes to disappear down! For example: I recently wanted to know if a 1700s era cannon was in an elevated position – on top of a wall, say – how close to the foot of the wall could it shoot? How did they shoot downwards? Could a cannon’s barrel be declined to shoot downwards? Was it ever the done thing? I lost hours. Found a multiplicity of blogs and rants and treatises and articles and instructional manuals about the optimum angle of elevation for maximum effective range for every kind of cannon and carronade and culverin and mortar and firestick. But what about when the other fellas are nearly at the bottom of the wall? I know they used a cotton bung to stop the cannonball rolling out when the gun was pointed down, but beyond that, I’m as ignorant as when I started.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

Something like how to shoot artillery from the top of a wall might seem like a detail I could write around, but it’s the little details that can catch you. If I want to have my characters defend a fortress when both sides have artillery, I need to know what the actual real strategies were for both attacking and defending a fortress with artillery. Just because it’s a secondary world, I can’t just make shit up that sounds good to me, because it will probably be completely wrong. Whatever secondary world you’re writing, it’s going to have a lot of real-world stuff in it. You have to get that stuff right first, if you want your secondary world to have any kind of credibility, then figure out how your magic and dragons and whatevs fit in with it and change it.

Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.

I think you need to approach research with the expectation that it’s going to change your story, because research is a critical part of the process of developing and refining your story idea. And, if you’re like me and keep researching as you write, it’s also part of your drafting process. As such, every bit of research tends to have consequential changes for my plots and scenes and worlds. Less so with characters, I think, unless they’re non-human (and I find a cool way to pimp them up some more) or based on historical figures (and I turn up an interesting factoid about the real person).

I have a draft of a historical fantasy novel currently filed in the Cry For Help folder, which featured a version of Peter Lalor, the leader of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion. I originally conceived him as a fairly idealistic figure, but then reading about the real man, I discovered that, after leading this rebellion to demand democratic rights for gold miners, he became a member of parliament and voted against those rights. Although the men he led to take up arms were Chartists and other advocates of democracy, Lalor wasn’t. He was a republican and a liberal, but not a democrat. Given that the conceit of my novel is, in part, “what if Lalor’s rebellion was successful?”, this tidbit threw up some interesting questions. So my version of Lalor now became a kind of Australian Robespierre and his rebellion/revolution followed the template of the French Revolution – including the Terror. Suddenly my character had way more depth and a way more interesting arc.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?

I said before that research is inspiration. Sometimes it’s also an obstacle or a roadblock. I don’t know that I’ve ever abandoned a story because of something my research turned up, but research often turns up inconvenient bits of knowledge that then need to be accounted for. In my story (deep breath) Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture, I conceived an alien species with five genders. Initially, I just said they had three available sex chromosomes which could be paired in five viable combinations. But then I read about the other non-chromosomal ways that gender is determined in nature, like temperature variance and haplodiploidy (look it up), so I had to not only have my scientist protagonist consider those possibilities as well, but I had to consider for myself whether they were more realistic than what I’d proposed.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?    

Research for stories is often esoteric, but I think it’s only weird to other people. If you’re geeking out on it, it never seems weird. And if you’re (if I’m) researching for a story, then you’re (I’m) probably geeking out. You just end up knowing a lot of unusual factoids – for my recent story Demons Enough I decided I needed to know how much blood is in an adult human (five litres, for anyone who’s interested). Knowing it wasn’t critical for the story (read it, you’ll see) and finding it out didn’t change how I told the story, but I was geeking out on the story, so I wanted to know. Not weird at all, see?

What kind of research have you needed to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? How do you approach that?

If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind you’re always researching for stuff that doesn’t exist. I think most of the time, you’re riffing on what’s real – extrapolating technology or politics, mashing things together to make a monster, filing off the serial numbers from some meditative technique and saying that’s what you do to work magic. And if you’re not riffing on what’s real, you’re probably riffing on something someone else made up before. So, for me, I don’t think there’s a difference in the research approach – writer-brain is always switched on. It’s more what I do with it once I’ve done the research. If I’m researching something that exists, then I regurgitate it as accurately as possible into my story. If I’m researching something that doesn’t exist, then I bang together things that do until I get sparks of something new.

A gigantic metal angel statue stands over a city with one arm raised. The buildings in the foreground are low and dark, the buildings at the angel's feet are tall and gleam with the reflected light of a setting sun.Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honourably mentioned for world year’s bests and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.

Ian lives in Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.

The Never Never Land is out!

The Never Never Land
The Never Never Land

Hooray! On Sunday evening we launched The Never Never Land, containing my new story “Adventure Socks”, at Conflux 11. Nicole Murphy did the honours, noting that “Everything is better with dinosaurs”,  and that happily Never Never Land does not disappoint on this score. We had readings by Cat Sparks, from her story “Dragon Girl”, and Shauna O’Meara (who also did the amazing cover and interior artwork) from her story “To Look Upon A Dream Tiger”.

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Nicole Murphy – “Everything is better with dinosaurs”
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Editors Ian McHugh, Mitchell Akhurst and Phill Berrie
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Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Shauna O’Meara

I am really proud of my story in this anthology – and I’m thrilled to be sharing a table of contents with such a talented bunch. There are a swag of authors in Never Never Land with established and even award-winning careers, along with a handful of new authors for whom this is their first publication. Congratulations CSFG and everyone involved for putting out another fantastic anthology.

*All photos by Cat Sparks, used with permission.

Book launch! Aurealis Awards! All the fun!

Last Saturday was a whirlwind of genre fiction goodness. First up I spent the afternoon at the launch of Ian McHugh’s award-nominated collection Angel Dust. His stories range from whimsical fantasy about turning fairies into wishes right through to one of the most fascinating and memorable sci-fi stories I’ve read, which interrogates how our assumptions might hamper our ability to understand and relate to an alien species. You should get it and read it. It’s awesome.

Ian Ian's launch

After that, I headed home for a nice cup of tea with the eternally energetic Nicole Murphy, which provided a much needed breather before the evening’s entertainment kicked off: the 2014 Aurealis Awards!

This year, as president of the CSFG, I was invited to present the awards for best collection and best anthology. I had the very great pleasure of being able to hand over the former to the formidable writing team that is Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannet for their collection, The Female Factory; and the latter to Garth Nix, who was collecting on behalf of Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, for their anthology Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories.

Seeing as it was also the 20th anniversary of the awards, we were encouraged to get into the spirit by donning 90s clothing. My effort was limited to digging out from the back of my cupboard a pair of boots I bought in 1992 (covered in approximately 20 years of dust and cobwebs) and teaming these up with a felt fedora and a pair of big hoopy earrings. But some people went to quite a bit of effort…

Ginger (aka Melbourne writer Maureen Flynn), Posh & Baby Spice
Ginger (aka Melbourne writer Maureen Flynn), Posh & Baby Spice

 

It was a great night, and I really hope I can go next year when it will be in a location yet to be disclosed, but probably not Canberra. Check out the full list of nominees and winners over on the Aurealis Awards blog.

Garth Nix, Margo Lanagan, Ian McHugh
Garth Nix, Margo Lanagan, Ian McHugh
Ian McHugh, Dennis Murphy, Me
Ian McHugh, Dennis Murphy, Me
Shauna O'Meara, who didn't stuff up the powerpoint slideshow even once
Shauna O’Meara, who didn’t stuff up the powerpoint slideshow even once
Tehani Wessely, Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannet, Liz Grzyb
Tehani Wessely, Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannet, Liz Grzyb
Thoraiya Dyer, Cat Sparks, Rivqa Berger
Thoraiya Dyer, Cat Sparks, Rivqa Berger

 

Keri Arthur
Keri Arthur

All photos courtesy of Cat Sparks

Torn

I sent my most recent story out a couple of weeks ago. I’m really happy with it, and I wrote it for an anthology being put together by a publisher whose work I admire. It’s a great concept for an antho, and I’d love to be involved. However, I have found myself a little torn.

A nice, cryptic reference to my latest story.  Image courtesy of Black-HardArtstudio from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A nice, cryptic reference to my latest story.
Image courtesy of Black-HardArtstudio from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You see, being a realist, I have to acknowledge that, despite the clear genius of this particular story, and my brilliant interpretation of the anthology theme, this publisher may reject it. There’s a smorgasbord of reasons why this might happen (including that my estimation of this story’s awesomeness may be wildly subjective). So, being an optimist, I have had a bit of a think about where else I might send it, if it bounces, and now I’ve come up with some ideas that I’m really quite excited about.

So, now I’m feeling torn!

It would be just as awesome to be picked up by Publisher B as it would be by Publisher A. C, D, E & F aren’t bad either.

I have to say, this is a preferable situation to be in, than having to face the inevitable despondency that comes with rejection cold. At least now I’ve got a backup plan.

One of the most useful things my writing group, the CSFG, has kicked off in recent times (probably about a year and a half ago), is a thing we affectionately call ‘Rejectomancy’. I think Ian McHugh coined that title. The idea that is that those of us participating set ourselves a submission goal for the year, acknowledging that rejection is the norm, and we’ll probably rack up a fair few. You might go with a formula something like: 5 submissions per story before it gets picked up. If you have 3 stories in your trunk, and you reckon you might write another 4 that year, that would give you a goal of 35 submissions. Of course, if that seems overwhelming, you can adjust it up or down.

We then report back to the group on the number of rejections we’ve had to date. It’s actually kinda fun & takes the sting out of every ‘thanks but no thanks’ email.

(I set myself a goal of 25, and I’m failing miserably, having made only 10 subs and it’s August already. However, I’ve got the best excuse ever, being that I sold 3 stories early on and much, much quicker than I’d anticipated.)

Rejectomancy has given me several things.

  1. I feel much more OK about rejections now. It’s no longer soul-destroying (well, not always, shall we say) and I’m much better able to just see it as part of the professional process.
  2. It makes me put together a bit of a submission plan for each story. If I’m going to do 5 subs on Story X, where are those subs going to be? I make a list of the markets I think will suit it best, and go from the top down. (That’s another bit of advice from Ian McHugh. Start at the top. Always.)
  3. It means I almost always have a few out there, doing the rounds. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. Your chances of winning are small, but they’re non-existent if you don’t buy a ticket. As long as I’ve got the story out there, in some editor/slush-wrangler’s in-box, my dream of it being published is still alive.